Agnipath will ring the death knell for the armed forces: Vinod Bhatia

Lt Gen Vinod Bhatia (retd), a former director general of military operations, narrates IE‘s Anirban Bhaumik that “Agnipath” is regressive and unnecessary and that the “Agniveers” will be risk-averse. Excerpts:

Do the Indian Armed Forces need a scheme like Agnipath?

Agnipath is the largest transformational exercise to be undertaken after the 1962 debacle. But Agnipath is regressive and definitely not necessary. Since 1947, India’s armed forces have proven their effectiveness across the conflict spectrum. India’s soldiers showed unprecedented bravery even in the face of Chinese aggression in 1962. The soldiers, sailors and air warriors are the strength of our armed forces. They cost the minimum and deliver the maximum.

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Will Agnipath make the armed forces leaner, smarter, and more youthful? Will it increase the soldiers’ professional skill level?

The armed forces need a sensible mix of youth and experience. An optimal balance was reached over the years, especially after the 1999 Kargil War. The youth profile was corrected based on the recommendations of the Kargil Review Board. There is no operational need to tinker with it.

Professional skills are improved through training programs. Agnipath actually shortens the learning curve.

It takes a soldier almost 4-5 years to become an effective member of his sub-unit or ship or squadron. Therefore, a tenure of only four years will adversely affect the training and mission of an Agniveer. The challenge in education is not imparting or acquiring knowledge and skills, it is the attitude that takes time to inculcate and absorb.

Yes, the army is getting leaner. The permitted strength remains unchanged. With no recruitment in the past two years, the Army has an existing staffing deficit of over 100,000 at all ranks. On average, army strength decreases by 55,000 to 60,000 men per year. As Agnipath plans to recruit 40,000 to 50,000 soldiers each year for the next five years, this will reduce strength. Given the current deployment, particularly along the Indo-Chinese Line of Actual Control (LAC), it will place additional burdens on soldiers and reduce the peacetime required for their retraining.

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Will Agnipath then dismantle the armed forces?

The program provides for the recruitment of soldiers for only four years, after which 25%. The recruitment base remains the same, as do the recruitment processes, selection system and criteria. The best will now join the Central Armed Police Forces, Assam Rifles, State Police Forces and other government services offering a secure and permanent job with no uncertainties.

Second, the army is a way of life, and a soldier takes pride in being part of a unit and regiment. He fights and dies for the “Naam, Namak, Nishan” of his unit. There’s no reason for a Tour of Duty soldier to make any sacrifices. The Agniveers will be risk averse, and rightly so. One should have learned from the experiences of the Russian army soldiers in Ukraine. This will impact the intangibles we fight for and ultimately sound the death knell for the armed forces.

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Has the government taken too great a risk by moving too hastily to bring about such radical changes in military recruitment?

Yes, not only is Agnipath’s concept wrong, but given the current security challenges, particularly China’s aggression along the LAC with India, its timing is not good either.

One of the arguments being made in support of Agnipath is that it will bring young people into the armed forces who are better attuned to the latest technological trends. What do you think?

Yes, this will improve the pickup of soldiers who are likely better at picking up and using technology. However, in four years, a technician will not be able to service airplanes, ships, submarines, tanks, radars, weapons, electronic warfare systems and other military hardware. The Agniveers who are trained by the Industrial Training Institutes for this task need 3-4 years of on-the-job training to have sufficient knowledge.

They have also raised concerns about Agnipath leading to a militarization of society. Why?

The 75% of Agniveers who are not selected for regular service in the armed forces are rejected, dejected and return to the villages in frustration. The reservations the government is now announcing will only help about 20% of them. The others, who by then will be reasonably trained in the use of weapons, can militarize society.

In recent days the government has announced a series of measures, including reserving jobs for the Agniveers, to quell outrage and protests over Agnipath. Could these allay concerns about the system?

Partially yes, but implementation will be the challenge. The government should take ownership and accountability for Agnipath’s success. The armed forces are currently defending the plan. However, violence in the name of protest is definitely not a solution and should be condemned by all.

What else should the government do?

Now that the program is in place, the government could initiate it as a pilot, study the impact, impact on combat effectiveness, operational and defense readiness, youth and soldier aspirations, and then review it with an open mind. Corrections during the course should be made wherever necessary. Good transition management is required that minimizes the unnecessary turbulence and unrest likely to be caused in the armed forces.

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